Readings from Rockin’ the Bronx. 6 p.m., March 11. Labyrinth Books, 290 York St. 203-787-2848, labyrinthbooks.com. Black 47 with Mighty Ploughboys, Country Caban and Myopia. 8:30 p.m. March 11. Toad’s Place, 300 York St. $12.50-$15 203-624-TOAD, toadsplace.org.
You’d think that for one of the country’s premiere Irish rock bands, March would be busy enough. For Larry Kirwan, at this time of year “you’re the beautiful girl of the year. Everybody wants you in March. I don’t knock it. It’s good to be wanted.”
But desirability knows no season when you’re not only fronting one of the toughest Irish bands in existence (new album: Bankers and Gangsters) but releasing a new novel (Rockin’ the Bronx), getting a New York workshop of the musical you co-wrote with novelist Thomas Keneally, writing regularly for the Irish Echo newspaper (which excerpts Rockin’ the Bronx in its March 3 issue) and hosting the Sirius radio show “Celtic Crush.”
Connecticut has been a major beneficiary of Kirwan’s multi-media hyperactivity. Last week in Hartford, Black 47 played the Half Door and Kirwan gave a reading at the Mark Twain House. On March 11, the band gigs at Toad’s Place while the reading is just down the block at Labyrinth Books.
Black 47 shows are exhausting reveries where the band’s fans and countrymen pound their fists in the air to strident songs about injustice, Irish history and culture and the funky Ceili. If you haven’t aged as gracefully as Kirwan has and can’t handle the raucous club scene anymore, Kirwan’s Labyrinth reading provides a gentler, though no less thought-provoking or “rockin’,” alternative.
Kirwan’s literary side tends to blur with his songwriting proclivities. His first novel, Liverpool Fantasy, imagined if the Beatles had broken up in 1963, never getting their chance to change the world. The scenario was inspired in part by Kirwan’s own dire and dreary dealings with the record industry. His next book was more detailed about those struggles in the Irish neighborhoods and New Wave hotspots of 1980s New York City. That full-blown, 400-page autobiography, Green Suede Shoes: An Irish-American Odyssey, was augmented with a Black 47 concept album, Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes.
Rockin’ the Bronx, likewise, springs from a Black 47 tune, “Sleep Tight in New York City/Her Dear Old Donegal,” from the band’s 1993 album Fire of Freedom. The song was later expanded into a one-man show (with Kirwan doing solo acoustic versions of Black 47 songs), and now a multi-cultural coming-of-age recent-historical novel. He still remembers the image that inspired the original song:
“I was in Donegal, looking out at a beautiful landscape, and I realized I knew so many [Irish] people in the Bronx, and how hard it must have been for them to leave Ireland to come there.”
Kirwan makes the urge to travel easy for the novel’s kindhearted, toughened protagonist Sean Kelly: The romantic young idealist is chasing a girl.
“I contend the ’60 died in the spring of 1982,” Kirwan says. “That’s when AIDS was first identified as a major disease, and when Ronald Reagan began to become this cherished icon. In Rockin’ the Bronx, I wanted to deal with that particular period between 1980 and 1982 — in the country as a whole, and in the life of New York City.
That era also provided a political awareness wake-up call for the Irish, Kirwan says, who was born in County Wexford, on the Southeast end of the country. “If you look at it from a Southern/Northern Ireland point of view, many in the South were completely unaware of what was going on.”
Kirwan’s delighted fellow immigrants seem to have taken to Rockin’ the Bronx.
“It brings back those times, the area, to them. Now it’s totally gone, but then it was a vibrant area with dozens of pubs. This was a tough, real, working-class culture. And in New York especially, there was a lawlessness. It was an exciting time. When we brought Black 47 there, it was like ‘If we can survive this, we can survive anything.’”